Thursday, January 10, 2008

Of fruit flies and Law and Order

On the blog Buff's Tuff Talk I came across this article about how scientists were able to change the sexual orientation of fruit flies. The article wondered if ultimately people would be able to make a switch-over, and even switch back, if they wanted to, and how this knowledge would be used by a homophobic society (not for any good purpose, you can bet). Undoubtedly there will be a lot of talk about this fruit fly business as there was and continues to be about the "gay gene" and the possibility of one day determining your child's sexual orientation.

[NOTE: Buff is very admirably in favor of HIV and AIDS awareness in gay men, which I fully support. And may I say that Buff himself is also rather -- well, buff! Hot, in other words!]

Now on Wednesday night the "straight from the headlines" TV show Law and Order (back on the air after a fall hiatus) had yet another "gay" episode, and as usual I have to give it a mixed review. This doesn't deal with fruit fly research and the possibility of turning everyone straight, but rather with the aforementioned gay gene, and the ability to determine a "gay" marker in an unborn fetus -- meaning most parents might opt to abort a gay child.

The subject is fascinating and scary. The teleplay (ironically but unfortunately titled Misbegotten), written by David Wilcox and Stephanie Sengupta, had to do with a bomb at a medical office which places a young women in a coma and endangers her unborn baby. There are the usual convoluted pathways, detours, and red herrings until we discover that the woman's brother-in-law, who turns out to be gay, planted the bomb. His target wasn't his sister-in-law (at first they thought he was simply trying to help his brother get rid of his wife) but a scientist who has developed the genetic marker for homosexuality. The gay guy is arrested but learns that his brother plans to have the fetus removed from his wife (ostensibly to increase her chances for survival) after learning it has the gay gene. The gay brother is appalled by this, but his brother basically says to him that he doesn't want his own son to have the miserable life his brother has had.

I kept waiting for the gay guy to talk about how most gay people's lives aren't "miserable" at all despite the discrimination, but he was basically a confused and fucked-up wimp. Which is one of the problems with the telecast. Even the militant members of my old group, New York's Gay Activists Alliance -- while we had plenty of zaps, protests, and "actions" -- never employed bombs against our numerous enemies. The gay man in Misbegotten isn't even an activist. He's out of the closet to some people, but keeps a "low profile." It seems strange that such a non-activist individual would suddenly resort to violence. There are, to be fair, hints that he's dealing with other issues in his life, but Law and Order moves too quickly to provide the incisive characterization that might have explained his psychology.

But what bothered me even more about the show was its somewhat old-fashioned (even as it exploited new-fangled science) attitude of "sympathy" as opposed to "equality." The viewers are meant to (perhaps) feel sorry for the gay guy (and by extension, homosexuals) but not to feel that their lives (or "life style") are equal to straights'. Despite his stupid actions, the gay defendant was not a representative of Gay Power nor did he seem to have much Gay Pride (which makes his actions even more inexplicable.) While its heart may -- or may not -- have been in the right place, Misbegotten came off not as a sharp, refreshing and enlightening examination of homophobia (although the word is invoked several times throughout the episode) but just something cobbled together -- all the right buzz words and so on -- to take advantage of that "ripped from the headlines" timeliness. It was certainly not as strong or powerful as it could have been -- although I wouldn't exactly call it homophobic -- maybe because the writers are presumably straight and don't have any true personal knowledge of the issues involved, something that no amount of writing skill can ever substitute for. I can't even be certain that the writers were "pro-gay," for that matter. It was as if they were trying to have their cake (evoke sympathy) while eating it too (making gays seem like pathetic losers).

In other words, like many "gay" episodes of Law and Order, it seemed more like something out of the 1970's or 80's than the 21st century, in spite of the "gay gene" trendiness. Too bad.
Writers, gay and straight alike, have to realize that our lives and the issues that affect us are much more -- to us -- than fodder for some "ripped from the headlines" television program.

UPDATE: The week after this episode Law and Order had another somewhat "gay" episode inspired by the Larry Craig men's room incident. When several male roommates are murdered -- one of whom is gay -- the investigation closes in on a closeted married man who was involved with the lawyer. But then it turns out that the lawyer wasn't the target and the investigation goes in an entirely different -- and less interesting -- direction. There were some real dumb moments in this script. A young woman who lives near the murdered roommates tells about how the gay guy "baked them a cake" to welcome them into the building. Why the hell did the writer have to have him baking a cake? Because the other guys dated women everyone assumes they're completely straight, even though the main suspect is a homosexual man with a wife! Then there's the ridiculous idea that this handsome, slick Out and Proud young lawyer would have an affair with a comparatively unattractive man who's not only middle-aged but in the closet and married. No, it's not impossible, but highly unlikely. Out and Proud guys rarely have an interest in becoming some closeted guy's "male mistress." After the married man is outed in a sort of men's room sting but is also cleared of murder charges, one of the detectives says (I paraphrase) "we played 'smear the queer' for nothing." It isn't seen as what might be a positive step in helping the guy accept his true sexuality. Dumb. Presumably a gay writer wouldn't have made such stupid mistakes.


buff said...

Howdy Bill. WOW, a super blog post.

Sorry I missed that particular L&O.

Like yourself, I get so very disappointed when the story line of a gay episode goes "limp wimped" as I like to describe this kind of weak portrayal of gay men.

We might have stood by idlely ten or fifteen years ago, but I agree, this garbage is just that.

God, you think writers could come up with something with some balls and portray a gay men with some radical backbone or at least a nice boner.

My mind, as usual is in the gutter.

Mega hairy muscle hugs of thanks for sharing such a insightful blog post. And all four of my cheeks are blushing. Glad my previous blog post could be a point of reference for you excellent post.

Bill Samuels said...

Great to hear from you, Buff!

Most of the gay episodes of Law and Order go "limp-wimped," as you put it. They're having yet another one next Wednesday, inspired by the Larry Craig bathroom incident. The preview showed one of the detectives in a men's room stall, tapping his foot! It'll be interesting to see how that one turns out!

Yeah, you'd think if shows are going to use gay characters and situations they'd at least have one gay guy with balls or, as you suggest, a nice boner.

All great minds are in the gutter, baby!

Anonymous said...

I went to grad school with Stephanie at NYU, we were pals, and I'm gay. Stephanie is keenly attuned to the issues that gays face, but in addition to there being no way to cram rich characterization into 42 minutes of prime time, the people who are the focal points of the investigations are almost always painted in broad strokes (gay and straight). These shows are basically 90-minute flicks condensed into 42-minute nuggets.

Bill Samuels said...

Good Point!

Thanks for your comment and the info.